Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Coronavirus Catastrophe in North Caucasus Moscow’s Fault, Sidorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – People in the North Caucasus are infected by and dying from the coronavirus in numbers orders of magnitude greater than officials there and in Moscow have acknowledged. More honest reporting might or might not have led to the kind of intervention necessary to prevent this, but at a minimum, it is what people there have a right to expect.

            Again and again, officials have refused to report honestly about the pandemic, choosing instead a variety of tactics, including misidentifying the causes of illness and death, to keep numbers down and thus not bring down the wrath of the Kremlin.  And the people there do not have the access to diplomats or journalists that might have exposed this and saved them.

            On the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal, Vadim Sidorov provides a window into what he describes as “the coronavirus in the Caucasus” and pointedly asks “who is guilty and what should be done?”  The situation he describes is deeply troubling and underscores why many in Russia far from Moscow no longer can trust the Kremlin (

            Last week, Vladimir Putin attracted a little attention to the disaster in Daghestan, which appears to be the hardest hit republic in the North Caucasus, during a video conference. He described the situation there as “not simple,” but he wasn’t prepared to be honest enough and describe it for what it is – “a catastrophe.”

            Official figures list Daghestan as ranking fifth among federal subjects in terms of the number of infections, but given its population, it outranks those above it in terms of impact.  And the situation is even worse than those official figures show, Sidorov points out. Republic head Vladimir Vasilyev unwittingly revealed just how bad.

            On May 16, he said that his republic had suffered 26 deaths from the coronavirus, but he added that 481 people had died of “viral pneumonia” over the same period. Most or all of those, of course, were undiagnosed or at a minimum unreported coronavirus victims. The two illnesses typically manifest themselves in the same way. Other officials have given even larger numbers.

            The situation in neighboring Ingushetia is similar. Officials numbers are relatively small, but the numbers of viral pneumonia infections and deaths are far higher as well. Local non-governmental organizations like the embattled Union of Teips of Ingushetia say bluntly that the official figures are understating the size of the problem.

            “The catastrophic or pre-catastrophic situation in these two republics obviously has been the consequence of a systemic failure in them of the healthcare system,” Sidorov says. “But the question remains as to who is responsible for this and what conclusions should be drawn” – or more bluntly, “who is guilty – the Caucasians themselves or the Kremlin?”

            Many Moscow commentators are inclined to blame the peoples of the Caucasus for their problems, arguing that these show that the nations there are “incapable of an independent existence and need direct rule from Moscow.”  But in fact, what has happened in Daghestan and Ingushetia proves the exact opposite.

            The disasters in both have followed the introduction of outside rule by the Kremlin which has imposed on these republics people who not only have not been chosen by the population via election but also have few or no contacts with the republic. Unlike leaders there in earlier years, those in Makhachkala and Magas now are outsiders.

            Instead of focusing on the people and its needs, they focus only on pleasing Moscow – and as a result, they have created problems for the people and for Moscow as well, Sidorov argues. The population in both republics understands that and is beginning to demand the restoration of directly elected republic heads.

            The coronavirus pandemic, which some have seen highlighting a shift in power from the center to the regions and republics, has in the North Caucasus underscored instead the unfortunate reality that it is the center’s continuing and even expanding direct rule that is responsible for the problems that region faces.

            As a result, Sidorov concludes, “the failure of this Kremlin experiment over the Caucasus republic one after another sooner or later will lead to a situation in which the return to their peoples of the power to make decisions on their own and take responsibility for them will become the only possible way forward.”

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